All 30 teams were in action this past Saturday night, putting a bow on what was a very compelling regular season, that saw exciting playoff races that went right down to the wire and unexpected heroes like Andrew Hammond and Devan Dubnyk arise and will their respective teams into the post-season. Other intriguing storylines include the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings missing the playoffs, the Winnipeg Jets squeaking in for their first playoff appearance in their second stint in the city, and the upstart Calgary Flames, a young squad that was pegged to finish in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, surprising everyone by booking their spot in the big dance.
Now that the playoffs are finally upon us it is time for the real excitement to begin. The match-ups are set in it is time for the analysts, the pundits, the bloggers, the gamblers and the fans to weigh in and make their picks. Which teams will make it four grueling rounds and earn the chance to sip champagne out of Lord Stanley's silver mug this year? Here's my opinion on which teams will make it through the first round.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Vancouver Canucks vs. Calgary Flames
This, like most of the other series in the first round, is a tough one to call. These two teams are relatively unknown commodities. Calgary has overachieved all season, and every time adversity reared its head the consensus was that the wheels were finally going to fall off and the Flames were finally going to realize they just weren't as good as their record indicated. Well, maybe they are just as good as the numbers say there are. Yes, they are young and inexperienced. Yes, their captain and best defenseman is gone for the season. Yes, their goaltending is inconsistent. Yet, despite all this they continue to get it done with an incredible work ethic, and with skill and speed that has given opposing teams nightmares down the stretch. The line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Jiri Hudler has arguably been the league's best in the last quarter of the season, and if they can continue their hot play they will be a handful for the Canucks to try and shut down.
The Canucks are, in many ways, the polar opposite of the Flames. They are still heavily laden with veterans from their 2011 Stanley Cup Finals run. After back to back first round eliminations in 2012 and 2013, and after missing the playoffs entirely last season, it seemed that the window had closed on this particular group as a playoff contender. However, a key free agent acquisition in Radim Vrbata, a bounceback season by the Sedin twins, and the emergence of Eddie Lack as a star goaltender has helped the Canucks bounce back from a terrible 2013-14 campaign, and while they might not be one of the heavyweights in the Western Conference, they are certainly capable of hanging with any of St. Louis, Chicago or Anaheim in a seven game series.
Prediction: The Canucks' experience, the superior goaltending of Eddie Lack, and home ice advantage tilts the equation in their favor. Canucks win the series 4-2
Anaheim Ducks vs. Winnipeg Jets
Conventional wisdom would tell you that the Anaheim Ducks should be heavily favored to win this series. They have a blend of size, speed, skill, leadership and experience that is the envy of the league. Speaking of size and skill, they boast one of the league's most deadly duos in Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and those two are as difficult to shut down as any pair in the NHL today. Add to that the inclusion of Ryan Kesler, a star center and former Selke Trophy winner that ranks among the best two way centers in the NHL, and you're looking at a major headache for any team unfortunate enough to cross their path.
Yes, it is a "Mighty" task to try to match up with this juggernaut from Anaheim, but the Winnipeg Jets might just be more suited to it than any other team in the Western Conference. The Jets have plenty of size, speed and meanness themselves, and those three characteristics are personified in their emotional leader, Dustin Byfuglien. Big Buff is an absolute force with or without the puck. Aside from Zdeno Chara, he is the biggest man in the NHL and he uses that size and weight to physical punish his opponents. He possesses and bullet shot and uncanny speed for a man of his size. He will be a major factor in this series. This is hardly a one man team though. The Jets have numerous players who can put the puck in the net, including captain and former Stanley Cup champion Andrew Ladd.
A few weeks ago goaltending would have been my biggest question about this team, but Ondrej Pavelec has been the hottest tender (sorry Andrew Hammond fans) in the NHL over the last few games of the regular season. If he can continue to stop pucks like he has been he gives his Jets a great chance to win.
Prediction: The Jets will use the energy from their rabid fans to win all three games at home, and they'll manage to steal one in Anaheim in game 7. Jets win the series 4-3
St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild, much like the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference, have been on a great ride the last couple of months. After acquiring goaltender Devan Dubnyk, the talented squad, which had been underachieving all season up to that point, suddenly found their game. They surged up the standings and into the playoff picture. Dubnyk was outstanding, eliciting talk as a possible Vezina and Hart Trophy nominee. Thomas Vanek finally rediscovered his scoring touch, providing the team with some much-needed offense that, combined with Dubnyk's stingy performance between the pipes, helped them post one of the league's best records down the stretch.
The Blues, on the other hand, were a model of consistency throughout the season, always lurking near the top of the Western Conference standings and never going through any sort of prolonged slump. The emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko as a bona fide superstar was an unexpected surprise, and helped make the Blues a team that could beat you in a high scoring game if necessary, rather than in their usual manner of relying on their strong team defense.
Speaking of team defence, they boast one of the league's best, with young stars Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk a nice complement to establish veterans like Barret Jackman and Jay Bouwmeester.
With size and speed, tons of skill and a stingy defensive game the only potential Achilles Heel the Blues possess is between the pipes. The tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen have been good all year, but neither has been able to really achieve the star status of goalies on some of the other contending teams.
Prediction: The Blues are too big, too skilled and too defensively sound to lose this series. They'll get traffic in front of Dubnyk and knock him off his game. The Blues win this series 4-1
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
Much like the Calgary Flames the Nashville Predators exceeded everyone's expectations this season. New coach Peter Laviolette instituted a system that saw fans in Nashville treated to a more offensive brand of hockey after years of watching the Preds play stifling defense under former coach Barry Trotz. Of course, many of the defensive habits nurtured by Trotz over the years remained in place so Nashville's d-core, led by Shea Weber, still managed to make things pretty tough on opposing forwards. Rookie Filip Forsberg was a pleasant surprise, lighting the lamp of a regular basis. He will no doubt be a contender for the Calder Trophy this season. The biggest reason for Nashville's turnaround, however, was the return to form of goalie Pekka Rinne. Rinne was a Vezina finalist in both 2011 and 2012 before injuries derailed the star netminder. Rinne was a wall for the Preds for the first half of the season and was arguably the frontrunner for this year's Vezina before yet another injury knocked him out of action. He's returned now, and is slowly finding his game again. If he can get back to 100% by the opening night of the series he will greatly enhance his team's chances of beating the Hawks.
Though the lower seed in this particular series, the Blackhawks are going to be favored by most pundits due to the fact they've captured two of the past four Stanley Cups. Though some of their supporting cast had an off year, captain Jonathan Toews had another strong season, and had he not broken his collarbone three quarters through the season, Patrick Kane likely would have wound up as this year's Art Ross winner in place of Jamie Benn. With Kane out of the lineup the Blackhawks have limped into the playoffs, but recent rumors suggest that Kane has healed faster than anticipated and might even dress for game one of the series. If so, that would obviously be a huge boost for the Hawks. Most players would be rusty after such a long layoff, but Kane's incredible skill would supersede the rust, and he could still be a dominant force.
Prediction: The Blackhawks, much like the Los Angeles Kings, have another gear come playoff time. With Kane likely coming back they will be too much for the Preds to handle. Blackhawks win the series 4-2
EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Montreal Canadiens vs. Ottawa Senators
As a Habs fan myself this is one match-up that I really hoped wouldn't happen in round one. The Senators have been playing playoff hockey for better than a month now, riding the coattails of goaltender Andrew Hammond and super-rookie Mark Stone. It has been the feelgood story of the NHL season and one that captured the hearts and minds of fans throughout the NHL. Not only have the Sens been playing great hockey recently, they've been a thorn in the side of the Montreal Canadiens for the past few years, including in the 2013 NHL playoffs when they ushered them out of the post-season in five games.
Ottawa notwithstanding, the Habs have some problems of their own. Their leading scorer Max Pacioretty suffered what appeared to be a concussion late in the season, and though he is skating again and taking puck drills his availability for game one (or any game) of the series remains in question. If he can't return it would be a huge blow for the Canadiens, who struggle to score at the best of times. Alex Galchenyuk might be able to pick up some of the scoring slack, but players like Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Plekanec are already likely maxed out in terms of the offense they can provide.
Luckily for the Habs they have an ace in the hole, and that ace is, of course, Carey Price. Following up on a year where he won an Olympic gold medal and then led the Habs to the Eastern Conference Finals before suffering an injury, Price has been the class of the league this season. He is considered a shoe-in for the Vezina this year and has a great shot at becoming the first goalie since Jose Theodore to win the Hart. He can steal this series for the Habs, and may need to, particularly if Pacioretty doesn't come back.
Prediction: Goaltending will be the difference in this series. Hammond has been stellar for Ottawa, but his Cinderella story will come to an end as the pressure of an all-Canadian NHL playoff match-up gets to him. Price won't flinch and will guide his team to victory, but it won't be easy. Montreal wins the series 4-3.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings
It is a true testament to Mike Babcock's coaching ability that the Detroit Red Wings are in the playoffs yet again. Despite extended absences by the team's biggest star, Pavel Datsyuk, and inconsistent goaltending throughout the bulk of the season, Babcock managed to push the right buttons at the right time and get his club a ticket to the dance.
Babcock will have his work cut out for him trying to shut down the attack of this electrifying Lighting squad though. Steven Stamkos is tough enough to defend by himself, but the Wings can't focus solely on the former Sarnia Sting sniper. Tyler Johnson had as many points as Stamkos (72) in few games played, and with 64 points, 21 year old phenom Nikita Kucherov wasn't far behind.
The Lightning's biggest advantage might be in net. 6'7" Ben Bishop covers a lot of net, and will have no problem seeing over those pesky Wings forwards who make a living in front of the net. He will out-duel either Jimmy Howard or Petr Mrazek.
Prediction: The experience of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will help the Wings make things interesting, but they are clearly overmatched by the Lightning. The Bolts will take this one 4-2
New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Before the season started, or even at the halfway point of the season I never would have imagined we'd see these two teams meet up in the first round in a 1 vs. 8 scenario. The Penguins just seemed to fall apart in the latter stages of the season and had to play desperation hockey just to qualify for the playoffs in game 82. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both good, but neither one stood out as a truly dominant player like they have in years gone by. Perhaps the plethora of injuries the pair has suffered and the tough mileage of playing so many hard minutes against the league's toughest d-men is finally starting to make this pair of supermen look human.
The Rangers, on the other hand, have been a well-oiled machine from start to finish, and even a freak injury to their superstar netminder, Henrik Lundqvist, did nothing to slow them down. With the acquisition of Keith Yandle at the trade deadline, the Blueshirts now have arguably the best squad of d-men in the league. Rick Nash returned to form as a dominant scorer, and the ageless Martin St. Louis continues to be a factor. Chris Kreider continues to improve and always seems to shine come playoff time, and he and fellow speedster Carl Hagelin will have the Pens' defenders sweating all series long.
Prediction: Despite the twin threats of Malkin and Crosby, Pittsburgh is overmatched in this one, even if they were playing their best hockey, which they are not. The absence of Kris Letang on the blueline will be keenly felt as well. The Rangers will win this one easily. New York wins 4-1
New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals
This one is going to be a barn burner for sure. Alex Ovechkin is back in prime form, and John Tavares is entering his prime and is ready to carry his regular season dominance into the playoffs. It might be the best head to head (individual) match-up in the first round of this year's playoffs. Ovie has been playing some inspired hockey until new coach Barry Trotz, hitting the 50+ goal mark for the 6th time in his career. He's also bought in defensively, and was a plus player this season after a miserable -35 campaign last year. Washington has more weapons than Ovechkin though. Longtime linemate Nick Backstrom is back in form as well, and finished the season 6th in NHL scoring with 78 points. They get a ton of points from their d-men, and goalie Braden Holtby really took his game to the next level this season, finishing 2nd in both wins and shutouts.
The Islanders might not have the same star power the Capitals boast, but Tavares has a great supporting cast in players like Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Frans Nielsen. The off-season additions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy really solidified the Isles' back end. Both d-men were offensive standouts, and Boychuk in particular added some much needed sandpaper to the D. In net, Jaroslav Halak - another off-season acquisition - has been hot and cold this season. Though he hasn't been outstanding, he has been more consistent between the pipes than the last several of his predecessors.
Prediction: Barry Trotz has the Caps working at full capacity. Though John Tavares will be a beast for the Isles in the first round he will fall just short of willing his team deeper into the playoffs. Caps win the series 4-2.